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A young woman standing in front of a graffitied wall.
Kassandra Alvarez, an organizer who lives in South Phoenix, Arizona, says her activism was motivated by SB 1070, the hardline anti-immigration bill.
Ash Ponders for Vox

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Young Latinx voters could be the ones who finally flip Arizona

“This is a chance for us to say, ‘Not in our state. We’re not letting this happen anymore.’”

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This is the third in a series of stories looking at the people who could cast the most decisive votes in the 2020 election. You can read Ella Nilsen’s story on suburban women here and Dylan Scott’s story on Rust Belt workers here.

Kassandra Alvarez remembers the anxiety she felt growing up in Arizona.

Alvarez, 27, was in high school when the Arizona state legislature passed SB 1070 — one of the most restrictive anti-immigration bills in the country. The legislation, which was approved in 2010, enabled police to demand federal registration papers from anyone who they believed was an undocumented immigrant. Once approached, those who didn’t have papers could be detained or even deported.

“When SB 1070 passed, you had to get training on how to protect yourself,” says Alvarez, whose entire family was undocumented at the time. “There was no other way to survive in Arizona.”

The bill — which became known as the “show me your papers” law — led to thousands of Arizonans leaving the state, while those who stayed feared targeting by police. Alvarez, along with her parents and sisters, was among those forced to make a contingency plan: If any of them got stopped, they would call a local lawmaker.

“My friend was pulled over with a broken taillight and he was put in jail,” Alvarez recalls.

Young Latinx voters like Alvarez could be the deciding factor for flipping Arizona.
Ash Ponders for Vox
Political posters in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ash Ponders for Vox

Used to intimidate and profile immigrants in the state, SB 1070 was a turning point for growing engagement of Latinx voters in Arizona, according to local organizers. Ten years later, many Arizonans who were children when the bill passed are now eligible voters, eager to vote out President Donald Trump, who’s promoted similarly racist policies.

Much of Trump’s presidency has built on the same xenophobia as the Arizona law: He has described Mexican Americans as “criminals” and “rapists,” promised to build a wall along the southern border, and enforced a zero-tolerance immigration policy that’s led to thousands of family separations, among a long list of discriminatory actions.

“What has pushed me the farthest away is he’s become a symbol of hate for my community,” says Alvarez. “The worry of whether my sisters are going to be able to apply for DACA again has been hanging over our heads for so long. When do we get to breathe?”

SB 1070 is still on the books but much of it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2012 — and further weakened by the Arizona state government in a 2016 settlement.

Young Latinx voters who were activated by SB 1070, like Alvarez, could be a deciding factor in flipping the state for Democrats. In 2016, Trump won Arizona by just 3.5 points — and a little over 91,000 votes. According to data from advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, 103,000 Latinx people in Arizona reached voting age between 2018 and 2020 alone. And Latinx voters’ overall share of the state’s electorate has grown from 19.6 percent in 2016 to 24.6 percent in 2020.

While Latinx voters are no monolith — one-fifth of Latinx Arizonans who responded to an October Unidos US poll said they’re backing Trump, for example — many younger voters lean more progressive, and a dedicated group of organizers has been working with their peers to oust the president.

After discovering in high school that she was undocumented, Alvarez became deeply involved in advocacy for immigrant rights and education access. She now works in public relations for a community college in Phoenix, and recently served as a delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic National Convention. She’s among a group of younger voters who have become politically mobilized.

“I was 9 or 10 when SB 1070 passed. I still remember it. I remember the protests. Seeing politicians attack people like us and our family members,” says Jacob Martinez, 19, an Arizona organizer for NextGen America. “That was a big part of my growing up. This is a chance for us to say, ‘Not in our state. We’re not letting this happen anymore.’”

The organizing movement that exploded after SB 1070 could be the same one that pushes Trump out

There’s been a growing organizing movement in Arizona for decades, and local activists say SB 1070 was a real tipping point.

“It not only galvanized Latinos and organizers, it energized people from other states,” says Arizona State University political science professor Lisa Magana. In a direct response to SB 1070, activists founded a grassroots movement called One Arizona. This coalition — which now includes over 20 organizations — has been dedicated to registering people to vote, educating residents about civic engagement efforts like the census, and championing racial justice. In 2018, One Arizona registered 190,000 voters, and it nearly matched that number this cycle.

The effects of this movement have been wide-ranging. Many of the early organizers during SB 1070 have now become state legislators, according to Melissa Armas, a coordinator for the advocacy group Aqui Se Vota. They include Phoenix City Councilmember Carlos Garcia, state Rep. Raquel Teran and state Sen. Martin Quezada. And voters in the state say it’s changed the way they talk about their own heritage and immigration in Arizona.

“I am a proud daughter of immigrants. Growing up in Arizona, you couldn’t express that you were part of the Latino community,” says Priscilla Acosta, 28.

Protesters hold signs that read “End SB 1070.”
Immigrant rights advocates held a day of protest in Phoenix, Arizona, on the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments over SB 1070 on April 25, 2012.
Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images

While Trump’s presidency has promoted the same type of racist practices that former Arizona leaders like Sheriff Joe Arpaio became known for, the pushback to these discriminatory policies has grown since 2010. In 2016, even as Trump was elected to the presidency, Arpaio — who was synonymous with targeting immigrants as Maricopa County Sheriff — lost his race for reelection, in large part due to organizers who mobilized against him. Most recently, Arpaio also lost the Republican primary for the job this year.

The surge in activism since SB 1070 has coincided, too, with a massive demographic shift in the state. In 2008, roughly 796,000 Latinx residents were eligible voters, while nearly 1.2 million are this year. Exit polls have found that Latinx voters predominantly backed the Democratic candidate in recent elections: 70 percent supported Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, and 61 percent supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. According to the October Unidos US poll, 67 percent of registered Latinx voters in Arizona say they support Biden.

Latinx voter turnout also surged in Arizona during the 2018 midterms, and that momentum is only expected to continue this cycle. “There were concerns that Latino voters wouldn’t turn out in 2018, and we saw record numbers,” says Latino Decisions researcher Edward Vargas. During the midterms, Latinx turnout was up 96 percent compared to 2014, according to Latino Decisions.

“The Latinx vote definitely has the power to swing this election,” says Lexy Reyelts, an Arizona organizer for NextGen America.

Trump’s treatment of immigration and health care have disproportionately affected members of the Latinx community

Both the immigration and health care policies of Trump’s presidency have had major effects on members of the Latinx community.

“When I was younger, it felt like the wild, wild West. You could have people come to the grocery story and not come back,” says Acosta. “That’s what I’m fearful of in the Trump administration, that all that progress we’ve finally done will get rolled back.”

Trump has actively targeted immigrants repeatedly, including Mexican Americans, who make up a large proportion of the Latinx electorate in Arizona, and lean more Democratic on average. Whether it’s comments he’s made about how a judge wouldn’t be impartial to his case because of the judge’s Mexican heritage — or his repeated use of the term “bad hombre” to invoke an unseen threat, Trump is someone that voters describe as normalizing racism toward the Latinx community.

Policies that Trump has pushed include repeated efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which shielded young unauthorized immigrants from deportation — as well as an ICE hotline where people can report alleged crimes by immigrants, and stringent restrictions on asylum seekers.

Trump supporters at a rally hold signs that read “Make America great again” and “Latinos for Trump.”
Trump supporters pass out signs before a rally in Prescott, Arizona, on October 19.
Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

“As a DACA recipient, it’s hard to advocate for yourself when there’s racist policies in place and, bottom line, they don’t want you here,” says Ramon Chavez, 27, who adds that a path to citizenship for DACA recipients has been among the chief issues where he’d like to see a clear plan. “It’s tough to live two years at a time,” he says.

Health care is also a top issue for many Latinx voters, especially in the wake of Trump’s botched handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected people of color — including in Arizona. “Latinx people were dying at higher rates than white people during the pandemic,” says Reyelts. According to an analysis by APM Research Lab, there have been 77 deaths per 100,000 Latinx residents in the state, while there have been 62 deaths per 100,000 white residents in the state.

Multiple voters also emphasized that they were focused on preserving the Affordable Care Act, which Trump has said he’d like to repeal while offering no clear proposal for how he’d replace it. “For the most part, Covid-19 and the cost of health care are overwhelmingly top issues,” says Vargas.

Biden isn’t necessarily many voters’ first choice, but some see him as their only one

Younger Latinx voters say they’re backing Biden not because he’s their top pick but because he’s their only one.

“He’s not my first choice, or my second, but I think he’s someone we can work with,” says Alvarez. Many young Latinx voters I spoke with cited Biden’s track record on criminal justice reform — including his work on the 1994 crime bill — as well as his past stance on sanctuary cities as reasons they aren’t enthused about his candidacy. Many do view him, however, as a far superior alternative to Trump.

“I don’t think Biden has any transformational ideas about where to take this country, but he feels like someone for the time being who can stop the bleeding,” says Gregorio Montes De Oca, 32.

Multiple voters told Vox that they felt like Biden’s outreach to Latinx voters in the state has been lacking, however. “There are people that think the Latinx vote is being taken for granted,” says Chavez.

Biden’s campaign emphasizes that it’s been dedicated to connecting with Arizonans on different platforms, with both the candidate and vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris visiting the state in recent weeks.

“Our team has made historic investments in reaching Latino voters by building a culturally competent program that has prioritized building relationships with community leaders, organizing every region by hosting social distanced events and daily phonebanks, and a robust bilingual digital, mail and paid media program to reach every voter across the state,” Luz Jimenez, Arizona Deputy Press Secretary for Latino Media said in a statement.

A Trump campaign spokesperson also noted that it’s established a “permanent presence” in state since 2016 and invested in regional ad buys, voter registration drives, and Zoom meet-ups aimed at Latinx voters. Trump and his surrogates have paid multiple visits to the state as well.

Cher speaks during a campaign rally for Joe Biden in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 25.
Ariana Drehsler/AFP via Getty Images

As Vox’s Nicole Narea has reported, Biden’s limited investment in Latinx voters has worried political observers including Chuck Rocha, a former senior campaign adviser for Sanders, who was concerned that he hadn’t committed more resources to regional organizations. In Arizona specifically, polling has also found that Biden has a potential weakness with male voters under 50, who are more likely to view Trump’s handling of the economy favorably.

An Equis Research poll in September found that 42 percent of young Latinx men were considering Trump for the presidency, compared to 16 percent of young women, 24 percent of older women, and 34 percent of older men. According to an October Alliance for Youth survey, 33 percent of young Latinx voters in battleground states had not been contacted by the Biden campaign.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen him reaching out to the Latinx community in particular,” says graduate student Destina Bermejo, 23, an Arizonan who’s actively against Trump but still wary of Biden.

A small pickup truck decorated with a garland of American flags carries signs that read “Vote” and “+1 your vote AZ, suma tu voto AZ.”
A small truck, encouraging folks to vote, sits outside the offices of Promise Arizona in South Phoenix, Arizona, on October 26.
Ash Ponders for Vox
A home draped in a Trump 2020 flag in the Jade Park neighborhood of South Phoenix, Arizona.
Ash Ponders for Vox

Bermejo tells Vox that she was unsure whether, given his prior record, she could trust Biden to implement the changes she’d like to see when it came to immigration policy. She wanted more detail, for example, on how he’d prevent abuses by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which was criticized for its detention policies during the Obama administration.

“Why am I going to trust this white man who is supposed to be representing the Latino community?” she asks. “I hate Trump, but it doesn’t mean I like Biden, either.”

Voters instead said that the energy they saw in state — and found most inspiring — was coming predominantly from the movement built by regional leaders. “I’m getting to know people in my own community to build something better,” said Bermejo. Most emphasized, too, that their vote and their support for Biden was the only way to go right now.

“For myself, my sisters are DACA recipients, my dad is undocumented, it’s really out of survival,” says Alvarez.


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